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France's last surviving combatant from the First World War is Italian-born Lazare Ponticelli (24 December 1897 – 12 March 2008) – the last 'poilu' officially recognized by the French government. 'Poilu' is a term of endearment for French First World War infantrymen, meaning 'hairy one.' Ponticelli's military service began in August 1914 when he lied about his age to join the French Foreign Legion and later, he was active with the French Resistance during the Second World War. It was known that he attended every November 11th ceremony at the 'monument aux morts' since the end of the First World War and up until 2007. After having often refused, he finally accepted in January 2008 the government's offer of a state funeral – with the conditions that it be "without fanfare, nor a large procession" and that a mass be held at Les Invalides "in homage to all his comrades who died in this horror of the war and whom France had promised never to forget." Ponticelli died on 12 March 2008, aged 110 and five days later, he was honoured with a national day of remembrance. After the unveiling of a memorial tablet by president Nicolas Sarkozy at the church Saint-Louis des Invalides, Ponticelli's coffin rested on site for a funeral mass and full military honours. The stone tablet's inscriptions and simplicity reflected the last veteran's wishes: "With the passing of the last French combatant from the First World War, the Nation witnesses its recognition towards those who have served under its flags in 1914-1918. France preciously preserves the memory of those left in History like the Poilus of the Great War. 17 March 2008". During the service, president Sarkozy "called on the youth of France to keep the 8.5 million fallen French of the Great War in their memories, and called the remembering of history a ‘human duty’."
On this day, 17 March 2022 we commemorate the 14th anniversary since the passing of Lazare Ponticelli – the last French combatant of the First World War – and the unveiling of a memorial in honour of the 8.5 million fallen French during that war.
André M. Levesque